Anyone who’s tried to create any sort of multimedia-based ebook knows that it isn’t the easiest process in the world. Many applications offer export capabilities, which gets your text and images roughly into that of an ePub layout, but the road forward from there is often fraught with difficulty: CSS fragments, mismatched formats and limited capability for doing anything truly unique.

Enter iBooks Author. As you might guess from the name, Apple’s new Mac application is designed to build beautifully-crafted multimedia books for the iBookstore and iPad. There is no support for the iPhone or the iPod touch.

Initially it looked like those who use other ebook platforms, such as Amazon’s Kindle, would also be out of luck. In the original release of the app, the end user license agreement (EULA) sparked some controversy as it stated that output generated by iBooks Author could only be sold via Apple’s iBookstore.

The company later backed down from that position slightly, updating the EULA to state that only files with the .ibooks suffix are subject to the restriction.

Apple’s iBooks Author enables you to build beautifully-crafted multimedia books with ease, but only for the company’s own iBookstore and iPad

Since iBooks Author can also be used to create text or PDF versions of a work, the original incarnation of the EULA implied that documents in those formats would be subject to the same terms, the amended agreement suggests that these versions can be sold elsewhere.

Of course, only .ibooks versions of the texts will feature the interactivity made possible by iBooks Author. The new and shiny format, *bookname*.ibooks, is an amalgamation of the W3’s ePub standard, CSS and some custom Apple-specific code. As a result, these books can be far more complex than any ePub 2 book on the market. Unfortunately, this renders them incompatible with other readers.

This vastly limits the uses of Apple’s new program, as you can probably imagine. That being said, those who want a way to build iPad-exclusive books will find iBooks Author an impressive tool to work with. If you want your interactive elements to work across the board there are better options for you.

The basics

As iBooks Author debuted with interactive textbooks in mind, those are the templates you see when first launching the program. There are six: Basic, Contemporary, Modern Type, Classic, Editorial and Craft, though each can be easily modified and saved as a new template.

By default, your book is divided into chapters and sections, as a typical textbook might be. On the iPad, each chapter of your book will render as a separate miniature TOC, with its pages laid out as scrollable thumbnails along the bottom of the screen. This is nice if you have multiple sections within each chapter; if you’re creating a book that only has chapters, however, you may prefer to build just one splash screen, creating a section for each chapter of your book.

Aside from the book’s main content, you can also alter its cover, add an optional introductory film and add terms to a searchable glossary. The glossary is admittedly pretty smart, and incredibly useful when creating a how-to manual or textbook. Glossary terms can include text, shapes, images, tables and charts; you can also link related terms within the entry.

While you have a decent amount of flexibility with the pre-made templates, we still ran into a few problems in the layout. Certain inserts, such as the section or chapter title, are styled throughout the book. This means that if you change the font or size for one instance of the title, all of them alter, which is more than a little annoying.

In addition, certain template text, like the section breakdown for a chapter’s TOC, cannot be edited in any way other than face and size. You can’t change the way the list is written (ex: ‘3.1 Section Name’), and you can’t even delete the mini-TOC, only hide it by sending it to the background.

iBooks Author’s six templates were created with interactive textbooks in mind, but each can be customised and saved as new templates

Quirks aside, iBooks Author has an incredible range of tools for tweaking and manipulating templates, many of them taken from its sister program, Pages. You can break pages and columns, style text, add drop shadows to shapes, mask images, change background colours and much more. We were able to very quickly mock up a chapter of a book, using a PDF as guidance, with almost every design feature carried over.

We were also able to import text and images from Pages using the app’s Insert Chapter From Pages Or Word Document feature. iBooks Author offers tools to help you build your book for viewing in either portrait or landscape mode; you can constrain your text to just landscape however, by checking a box to disable portrait orientation.

Previewing is also easy to do if you have an iPad. Tether it to your computer via USB, click Publish and iBooks Author will send a proof of the book over to iBooks. You must be using iBooks 2 to view any Author-made books.

We were a bit disappointed to not have a wireless version of this feature, with AirPlay it shouldn’t be hard to implement, but we hope Apple will improve upon this in the months to come.